The diamond's finger and the declin of Kung Fu


Here we offer a brief historical journey on the decline of martial arts in China.

The revolt movements under the Qing in the 18th and 19th centuries

The golden age of Chinese martial arts probably lies in the reign of the Ming Dynasty. Although some older dynasties, such as the Tang (618-907 AD) promoted the rise of Buddhism, granting Shaolin monks vast lands and permission to raise an army, it is likely that it was under the Ming (1368-1644) that the fame and influence of Shaolin temples was at its peak. At that time the temples enjoyed a great reputation and provided training for the elite of society; several high mandarins, great generals, members of the nobility received their training there.

The overthrow of the Ming Dynasty by the Quing (1644-1912) marked a radical break in the evolution of martial arts.

The Manchus, china's new masters, were considered invaders by the Martial Arts Schools. Allied to the imperial power of old, the temples were associated with a movement of resistance and rebellion against the new rulers. Exasperated, Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796) ordered the destruction of the famous Shaolin Temple around 1735 in order to control the anti-Qing movement. The annihilation of the temple and several thousand combatants caused the break-up of educational structures, drastically changing the position of monastic institutions on the social chessboard.

Now fugitives and outlaws, many monks, practicing martial arts, had to live in hiding or go into exile outside China. The transmission of knowledge was now to be secret and dispensed to people of trust. The burning of the Tower of Knowledge and the destruction of thousands of high-level works caused a considerable loss of knowledge. For example, craftsmen had lost the secret of making sharp and robust weapons as they once made.

Thus began the long and irreversible decline of traditional martial arts.

After Shaolin, kung fu was virtually reinvented thanks to the hard work and perseverance of the 5 invincibles who were outside the temple at the time of the massacre. Other experts who lived in society also contributed. New styles appeared: Pak Mei, Wing Chun, Hun Ga, Choy Lee Fut. Former schools also ensured continuity in transmission such as the White Crane and Wudang. In any case, the modes of transmission and practice were profoundly transformed.

From then on, teaching clandestinely in secret societies, the masters aimed to train the fighters quickly in order to continue the resistance against the Qing. These clandestine warriors fought mercilessly for more than 2 centuries against the Qing whose reign was marked by several revolts: rebellion of the Three Feudatories (1673-1681), revolt of the White Lotus (1796-1803), uprising of the Celestial Order (1811-1814), the 2 Opium Wars (1840-1842, 1856), revolt of Taiping (1850-1864). Finally, the Boxer War (1898) involved several secret societies known collectively as the Fist of Justice and Concord.

The 20th century

1- The Fall of the Qing

Th20th century was marked by the fall of the last imperial dynasty of China in 1912 and, once again, the martial arts community played an active role in it! Indeed, it was thanks to the support of secret societies that Sun Yat Sen was able to create the Republic of China on January 1, 1912.

Then China was plunged into a long chaotic period: virulent internal struggles for the seizure of power by various factions: period of the War Lords (1916-1928), seizure of power by Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang (1928), Mao's long march (1934-1935), Japanese invasion (1937-1945) and finally the final takeover by the Communists and the creation of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.

2- Creation of the People's Republic of China

It seems useful here to cite a powerful example that will help to focus on our main concern: the identification of the factors of decline of traditional martial arts.

In 1945, Mao summoned the best martial arts practitioners under the pretext of putting their combat knowledge at the service of the Chinese people. Thus everyone had to demonstrate his competence in the art of combat. He asked each Master for a demonstration of their know-how.

He asked them the following question:

- "What is the most effective and dangerous technique for killing someone?"

A Master then demonstrated the "diamond finger" that is to say that he drilled a hole in a cement wall with his index finger! Mao then asked:
- "How long does it take to master this technique?"
- "Between 5 and 8 years"

Mao then asked one of his soldiers to shoot at the concrete wall with his pistol. Same result!

Mao wanted to show that Kung Fu no longer had a place in a modern world. It accentuated an already well-underderway decline. Contact with the West and the introduction of firearms were fatal to martial arts. It should be noted in passing that since the first Opium War, when the British armada defeated with some ease a very larger Chinese army, the effectiveness of martial arts was seriously questioned. It was now possible to quickly form an army with modern armaments without having to resort to kung fu experts. Moreover, the long resistance against power for more than two centuries had largely decimated the number of these shadow fighters.

In the new PRC, the Communist Party of China (CPC) was omnipotent. He even had more powers than the Emperor in the families. The many mass campaigns orchestrated by the CPC have sought to legitimize unfair and violent methods in order to lower social classes for the benefit of a so-called egalitarian society. As a result, several social groups deemed likely to resist were eliminated one after the other. The state ruled out any move it considered threatening. The CPC secured the support of the population through constant propaganda that proved to be an effective tool for indoctrination. Ideological manipulation and terror thus went hand in hand. Recalcitrants who were not put to death were sent to rehabilitation or re-education camps, a euphemism for forced labour camps.

The kung fu community then experienced a new wave of exodus from its practitioners.

As a result of efforts in infrastructure and agriculture and the assistance of the USSR, the new PRC experienced interesting growth. Encouraged by these results Mao decided to accelerate industrialization in order to join the West. He imposed a great leap forward (GLF), a real forced march towards communism, where 650 million Chinese were mobilized in an intensive national effort of unprecedented magnitude. The GLF ended in disaster. Droughts, poor harvests, failed industrialization and declining production resulted in between 20 and 30 million people dying of hunger or malnutrition.

Despite the advice of his close advisers Mao refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. He was then removed from power in 1959 by the CPC's pragmatists who curbed this forced march towards a communist society. They showed greater flexibility to stimulate economic growth (1960-1965).

3- The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

Mao then engaged in a power struggle to regain control of the CPC. In 1962, thanks to his prestige and alliances within the army, he organized a counter-offensive that gave rise to the Cultural Revolution. Mao's faction began a wide-ranging smear campaign in which he encouraged criticism of the party's policies. Thanks to this operation his main opponents were dismissed because they were considered a class of exploiters and revisionists; they were blamed for the failure of the GBA. Thus, Mao won this power struggle within the CPC in 1965.

This was only the prelude to the Cultural Revolution. The worst was yet to come!

In the summer of 1966 millions of fanatical students answered the call of their president. With the support of the army, children, teenagers, students are recruited in the Red Guards, engaged in a witch hunt that will allow Mao to rid the regime of the intellectuals, the rich, the civil servants and all opponents.

Because of their inexperience, the young were easily indoctrinated. It was the only segment of society that did not know disillusionment with the egalitarian aspirations of a classless society. They were therefore invited to actively participate in the construction of an egalitarian society. This is a true ideological heresy motivated by the destruction of 4 old things that would undermine the proper functioning of the revolution: ideas, culture, customs and habits! Children were used against their parents, students against their teachers, workers against their leaders.

In the name of class struggle, little red book in hand, the Red Guards swept the country for two years. They sowed terror by massacring, torturing, persecuting, arbitrarily murdering thousands of citizens with the support of the government.

In order to avoid being mistreated, people would destroy valuable cultural property themselves!

A true collective outburst, they would shamelessly indulge in all excesses to the point of becoming totally uncontrollable. Song Yongyi reports that "historical sites, irreplaceable relics, books and art objects were systematically looted, burned, broken under the pretext of getting rid of the 4 olds"

In July 1968, Mao ordered the demobilization of the Red Guards by the army on the grounds that they had failed in their mission. In 1969 more than 14 million of its most active members were sent to labour camps in the countryside!

It was in the context of the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution that the practice of traditional martial arts was strongly discouraged. Assimilated to culture, one of the 4 old-fashioned things that had to be eliminated, kung fu went against collectivist and classless ideology. Indeed, family transmission of knowledge, individual practice, hierarchy in the structure of schools because of the system of ranks and belts did not mix well with the official discourse. In short, martial arts were considered, once again, as subversive!

Traditional schools have given way to state education through the Chinese Wushu Association. Its mandate is to regulate teaching, develop programs for instructors and ranks. Chinese gymnastics and standardized forms replace traditional kung fu teaching, thus confirming the profound decline of martial arts under the Cultural Revolution with the abolition of the traditional system of belting and transmitting martial knowledge.

Current situation

In the 1990s, the regime experienced some easing and martial arts are again seen as an integral part of Chinese culture, provided that the limits set by the state are respected.

However in Vietnam the history of communism did not experience such excesses to the extent that the people were united in their struggle for independence. Moreover, Chinese communism could not assimilate Vietnamese culture, which has retained its essence despite the influence of the Chinese world. However, there is a certain political takeover of martial arts for the benefit of the ruling party through the practice of Vovinam.

Today, China's power is no longer to be demonstrated and its international aims in global leadership raise legitimate questions. How far will China go in its quest for world domination and the abolition of democratic values?

Malcolm St-Pierre
Master Nan Ngu
Montreal, April 14, 2020

Share this Story